Tag Archives: European Commission

Hungarian NGOs embrace civil disobedience

I don’t think anyone was surprised when two days ago the Hungarian parliament with its overwhelming, almost two-thirds Fidesz majority passed a law imposing strict regulations on foreign-funded non-governmental organizations. The law bears a suspicious resemblance to the 2012 Russian law that required groups that received funds from abroad to identify themselves as “foreign agents.” The Hungarian version is somewhat more “lenient.” The targeted NGOs don’t have to call themselves “foreign agents,” but they must bear the label that they are the recipients of foreign funds, which can be considered a stigma.

Defenders of the bill insist that there is nothing “discriminatory” in this new “civic law,” but, of course, this is not the case. If it were, there wouldn’t be so many “exceptions” to the rule. For example, churches and sports clubs are exempt. Fidesz politicians feel confident in capitalizing on how the Hungarian everyman reacts to anything foreign, especially after a series of anti-migrant campaigns that, as we know from polls, greatly increased xenophobia in the country. Just imagine an interview with the managing director of TASZ, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, in which either she must introduce herself or the reporter must introduce her as “the leader of a foreign-funded organization.”

Fidesz’s pretext for enacting such a law is the government’s alleged striving for more transparency and for preventing money laundering and the financing of terrorism. Anyone at all familiar with the work of such organizations as TASZ, the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, or Amnesty International, three NGOs that are specifically targeted by the government, knows that it is not money laundering that is bothering the Orbán government. Over the years these NGOs have become increasing irritants as far as the Orbán government is concerned. Every time the lawyers working for these NGOs suspect illegality they immediately turn to the courts, and they almost always win. As far as Fidesz and the Orbán government are concerned, this is an intolerable situation.

The government’s position is that human rights activists are not elected officials and therefore they have no right to act as a quasi-political opposition to the elected government. Of course, this argument is unacceptable in a democratic society where people can freely organize political associations on pro- or anti-government platforms. Even political parties fall into the same category. They are voluntary organizations ruled by their own by-laws and their own boards of directors. All these groups have the right to function freely as long as they act in a lawful manner. Fidesz has pretty well succeeded in making the other political parties inconsequential. But the NGOs refuse to go away or kowtow to the government. And so it was time, somehow or other, to get rid of these pesky civil rights activists with their highly qualified lawyers who keep poking their noses into the Orbán government’s dirty business.

Viktor Orbán hates these organizations, whom he considers in large measure responsible for many of his problems with the European Union, the European Court of Justice, and the European Court of Human Rights. If these organizations hadn’t existed, he wouldn’t have had half the problems he has had over the years with the European Commission.

With the anti-NGO law, Orbán is most likely convinced that the small, cosmetic alterations the government made by incorporating some of changes recommended by the Venice Commission will satisfy the European Commission, as similar superficial modifications to Hungarian laws satisfied the commissioners in the past. For a few days foreign papers will be full of articles condemning the undemocratic, illiberal Hungarian state and a few foreign governments will publish official statements expressing their disapproval of Orbán’s latest move, but nothing of substance will happen. In fact, in a couple of days everybody will forget about the bill and its consequences. Then, sometime in the future, the Orbán government will make another move against the NGOs. Because few observers believe that this will be the last attempt to get rid of the NGOs that stand in the way of the present Hungarian government.

Only a few hours after the enactment of the “civic law,” TASZ announced that it will not obey the law, i.e. it will not register as the law demands because “this is the most effective way of combating this unconstitutional law.” According to TASZ, the law violates the freedoms of speech and association and unlawfully differentiates among civic organizations. TASZ’s lawyers are also convinced that it violates EU laws because the legislation violates the European Union’s internal market rules, in particular the free movement of capital. TASZ is prepared for the consequences of its action. Máté Szabó, professional director of TASZ, argued along the following lines: “Some of the enforcement possibilities will be open to us only if we don’t comply with the law. Since we do not want to relinquish a single law enforcement option, we will not comply with the requirements of the law.” Stefánia Kapronczay, executive director of TASZ, said: “We are aware of the fact that legal procedures will be initiated against us, but we are not afraid of them. Yearly we represent our clients in more than a hundred cases in the courts of Hungary, the Constitutional Court, and the Strasbourg court…. I’m convinced that after long procedures this law will have to be discarded.” The Hungarian Helsinki Commission joined TASZ in boycotting the new law on civic groups. “Unless and until the Hungarian Constitutional Court and/or the European Court of Human Rights hear the case and approve the law, we will not register.”

I think that the decision of these two civic organizations is the correct one, even if László Trócsányi, minister of justice, announced that “civil disobedience is not known to me, nor is it known in [our] legal system.” This was obviously meant not as an admission of ignorance but as a warning to TASZ and the Hungarian Helsinki Commission. However, I would like to remind Trócsányi that his lawyers don’t have a great track record against the lawyers of these two NGOs.

June 15, 2017

The “Let’s stop Brussels” questionnaire: Orbán’s silver bullet?

I haven’t analyzed Viktor Orbán’s speeches for some time, but yesterday he delivered a fairly important speech to parliament. So I think it’s time to take a closer look at the Hungarian prime minister’s state of mind.

As usual, he is on a war footing with Brussels. But if I’m correct, his posture, despite his belligerent tone, is more defensive. His position within the European Union has weakened considerably since the Brexit referendum and the French election. More and more voices can be heard within the European Union calling for financial retribution as a form of punishment for countries that refuse to cooperate when it comes to the refugee crisis. For the time being Jean-Claude Juncker would like to avoid such a drastic step, but the announcement of a looming infringement procedure can be expected any day.

Obviously, Orbán has been expecting such a move on the part of the European Commission. Right now the only bullet in his defensive arsenal is “the national consultation,” with which he wants to “stop Brussels.” But not all bullets are equally effective. The “Let’s stop Brussels” campaign and its imbecilic, deceptive questions have annoyed the Commission from the beginning. I very much doubt that the Commission will be impressed by the responses the Hungarian government received arguing against any interference by the European Union in what Viktor Orbán considers purely national affairs.

Before I turn to the actual speech, I would like to say something about the “success” of this particular consultation. The claim is that the “Let’s stop Brussels” questionnaire was returned by a record number of citizens. Indeed, if we take a look at the Wikipedia entry on “Nemzeti konzultáció,” we can see that this year’s questionnaire was returned by a greater number of people than any of the other five campaigns previously staged. However, we must keep in mind that no independent body counts the returned forms. We have only the number the Orbán government provides.

Given the lack of accountability of the government, I have long had my doubts about the government’s figures in connection with these consultations. This time I’m even more suspicious than before. The consultation drive began on April 1, and on April 19 Antal Rogán’s propaganda ministry reported that 140,000 questionnaires had been returned. But then, on April 25, six days later, Csaba Dömötör, undersecretary in the prime minister’s office, announced that 380,000 questionnaires had been received. Quite a jump, I would say. Two weeks after that, the same Dömötör triumphantly announced that “more than 1,130,000” citizens had already returned their questionnaires. In two weeks the numbers had almost tripled. But if the drive was such a success, why was it necessary for Lajos Kósa, as leader of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, to ask for an extension of the deadline from May 20 to May 31? In any case, Viktor Orbán at the beginning of his speech in parliament yesterday claimed that 1.4 million people are practically unanimously standing behind the government in its fight against Brussels. This number, by the way, by the end of speech became 1.7 million. So, who knows?

Altogether 8.1 million questionnaires were sent out to all citizens over the age of 18, and therefore it doesn’t matter how you slice it: 1.4 or 1.7 million returned questionnaires, take your pick, shouldn’t be hailed as a great victory. But what is really annoying is that Viktor Orbán blithely turned the official government figure(s) of a 17%-21% return rate into a pro-government response rate of greater than 50% when he said that “the majority of Hungarians think that Brussels is going in the wrong direction.”

What do the government and the “majority of Hungarians” want, according to Orbán? They want “a Hungarian Hungary and a European Europe.” A couple of years ago Jobbik’s Gábor Vona announced with great fanfare that “Hungary belongs to the Hungarians,” and it seems that Viktor Orbán now agrees with him. I wonder what he would say if the prime minister of Slovakia or Romania announced that he wants to have an ethnically pure Slovakia or Romania and the Hungarian minority has only two choices: emigrate or assimilate. I assume there would be an incredible outcry, and with good reason. As for the “European Europe,” we all know what Orbán has in mind. A white Europe.

In connection with the ten-year jail sentence for “terrorism” meted out to Ahmed H. for using a megaphone to call for calm during clashes at the Serbian-Hungarian borders, Orbán accused “Brussels” of supporting terrorists at the expense of the security of the Hungarian people. Bernadett Szél (LMP) said in response that Orbán had “misplaced his medication.” George Soros couldn’t be left out of Orbán’s speech to parliament, and indeed the “American speculator” was pictured as someone who is directing the fate of Europe. The European Commission is under his influence. He asked the members of parliament “not to stand by Brussels in Hungary’s disputes with the European Union.” In addition, the parliamentarians “should stand by the Hungarian people in the battle between the Soros mafia and Hungary.”

Orbán announced that Hungary “can’t accept that [its] future is decided in Moscow, Brussels, and Washington.” As for the future, Orbán made some strange comments. Let me quote one of them. “The French election during the past weekend shows that the revolt of the European people has also reached France.” We know that when Orbán in the last couple of years was talking about “the revolt of Europeans” he was not thinking of Macron’s centrist movement. Macron’s victory is not a welcome piece of news for Orbán, which he tries to hide here. He also seems worried about a possible French-German “experiment to transform Europe,” which may take place after the German election. At the moment, “it is not clear whether these developments will help or hinder the realization of Hungary’s national interests.” Odds are, however, that hard times are coming, and therefore the national consultation took place at the best possible moment.

Let me express my very serious doubts that Orbán’s national consultation is the kind of silver bullet that will save the Hungarian government from the consequences of Viktor Orbán’s antagonistic, confrontational behavior and his flaunting of the core values of the European Union. Surely, in his sane moments he must know that those stacks of returned questionnaires are not worth a plug nickel when it comes to negotiations with the important political players of the European Union.

June 13, 2017

George Soros and the mafia state: The Hungarian reaction

The Brussels Economic Forum (BEF) recently held its annual conference on economics and finance. BEF is a European Commission- sponsored organization where politicians and scholars deliver lectures, and where panel discussions are normally moderated by journalists. It is a truly international gathering. This year’s keynote speech, delivered by George Soros, created an uproar in Hungarian government circles.

The speech was mostly about the European Union’s precarious position given that it is confronted with powers that “are hostile to what [Europe] stands for”–“Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt, and the America that Donald Trump would create if he could.” Soros talked about the need for “both salvation and radical reinvention” of the European Union. He addressed Brexit, the Eurozone, the migration crisis, and the banking crisis in Italy. It was at the very end of his short speech that he talked about the resistance of young people all over Europe and Great Britain against undemocratic right-wing parties and governments. He singled out “the ruling Law and Justice party in Poland, and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary.” He was most surprised and heartened by the resistance in Hungary to the Orbán government’s attack on Central European University, something he was not expecting. He added: “I admire the courageous way Hungarians have resisted the deception and corruption of the mafia state Orbán has established, and I am encouraged by the European institutions’ energetic response to the challenges emanating from Poland and Hungary. While the path ahead is perilous, I can clearly see in such struggles the prospect of the EU’s revival.”

George Soros had visited Brussels a few weeks ago to confer with EU politicians about the plight of Central European University, but otherwise he had remained silent on the subject. Nonetheless, for months he has been under relentless attack by the Orbán administration, so it was amusing that the first reaction to his speech from members of the Fidesz leadership was that Soros’s comments were a clarion call for war against the Orbán government. As Tamás Deutsch, a Fidesz EP member, put it a few hours after the speech, “if it’s war, let it be war, we are ready.” By the next morning, when Viktor Orbán delivered his Friday morning “interview,” Soros’s critical words about the “mafia state” had become a “declaration of war.” Orbán said that if anything in Hungary can be called “mafia-like,” it is “the Soros-sponsored network of NGOs.” Fidesz filed a complaint with the European Commission, the sponsor of the Brussels Economic Forum. The party is looking for an explanation of how such comments could have been uttered at an event under the aegis of the European Commission.

It has been in the air for some time that certain Fidesz politicians are preparing themselves for renewed anti-government demonstrations sometime in the fall. If trends continue, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if spontaneous or quickly organized demonstrations would take place as soon as students return from their summer vacations. Most likely the Fidesz leaders feel the growing dissatisfaction, and they’re trying to lay the groundwork to counter such events. One way of handling such situations is to blame any kind of anti-governmental movement on a foreign culprit. And, of course, there is no more prominent culprit than George Soros. Antal Rogán, at one of his propaganda campaign stops, indicated that there might come a day when the police will have to use force against the demonstrators, who receive instructions in training camps and who provoke the police. He claimed to know about the existence of such training camps in Hungary. And who is behind these training camps? Naturally, the Soros-financed NGOs.

This nonsense is now being spread far and wide by the government propaganda machine. Ottó Gajdics, the editor-in-chief of Magyar Idők and one of the most primitive Fidesz propagandists, is warning Viktor Orbán to be prepared for “blockades and the occupation of government buildings.” The organizers of the past demonstrations realized that “rallies with music and dance” are not effective enough, and therefore hard-core violent demonstrations might take place. Gajdics’s fear of such a development was reinforced by George Soros’s “message.” Soros said in his speech in Brussels that “it is not enough to rely on the rule of law to defend open societies; [one] must also stand up for what one believes.” As far as Gajdics is concerned, that is a call for revolution.

The editors of Magyar Idők found the idea of a revolution in the fall organized by George Soros so attractive that, in addition to Gajdics’s editorial, the paper published another opinion piece in which the unnamed author foresees a scenario similar to that taking place in Macedonia. Macedonia, in his opinion, “has been ravaged” by George Soros via his NGOs. There the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that a few days ago a would-be assassin fired three shots at an outgoing minister of the Gruevski government. “We can only hope that [what happened in Macedonia] is not the dress rehearsal for the Hungarian elections [because] the expression ‘mafia state’ wasn’t uttered by accident as the crowning moment of the merciless speculator’s speech.”

It is somewhat surprising how enraged the Orbán government is with the label “mafia state” since the term, as readers of Hungarian Spectrum well know, has been in circulation since at least 2013, when Bálint Magyar published the first article in which he used it. The term stuck abroad as well. I found via Google over 1,000 mentions in English of Hungary as a mafia state. In Hungary about a year ago an opinion poll revealed that a majority of Hungarians describe the Orbán regime the same way.

A couple of days ago I saw a headline claiming that the anti-Soros propaganda campaign is not as successful as earlier Fidesz propaganda efforts had been. Well, equaling or surpassing the anti-migrant campaign would be a difficult task, I admit, but the latest Republikon Intézet poll reveals that this particular Fidesz effort is in fact effective. Only 31% of the population think that Soros does not at all or does not seriously intervene in Hungarian domestic politics, while 28% believe that he has considerable influence on Hungarian politics and 12% think that he has some influence on Hungarian politics, with about 20% not willing to take sides. That means that 40% of the adult population more or less bought the anti-Soros propaganda. Of course, Fidesz voters are especially prone (about 70% in this case) to believing whatever the party tells them. For those who understand Hungarian, I highly recommend taking a look at this video where hard-core Fidesz voters tell the journalist what they think of George Soros and Brussels.

The socialist-liberal-Jobbik group is more immune to the government propaganda: only 30% swallow all the horror stories they hear on television or radio or read on the right-wing internet sites. Indeed, it could be worse, but unfortunately propaganda Orbán-style is extremely attractive because it appeals to patriotic or nationalistic impulses, which are hard to combat.

June 3, 2017

The anti-EU, anti-Soros campaigns continue with renewed vigor

As Der Spiegel reported yesterday afternoon, Chancellor Angela Merkel, when asked her opinion of the outcome of the meeting between the presidency of the European People’s Party and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, remarked that promises are one thing but she is waiting for “the actual results.” It seems that Viktor Orbán can no longer hoodwink European politicians. They have learned over the years that it is foolhardy to trust Orbán and his fellow Fidesz politicians.

Merkel’s comment came after the meeting about which we now know a little more. Today Der Spiegel reported that EC President Jean-Claude Juncker and Orbán, who were seated next to one another, engaged in an extended, vehement argument. At one point Jyrki Katainen, vice president for jobs, growth, investment, and competitiveness, apparently warned Orbán that the regional subsidies could be reduced in the future.

Der Spiegel opined that the EPP leadership is mistaken if they think that Orbán’s verbal agreement will be translated into deeds. This is also more or less what Rafał Trzaskowski, a Polish MP from the Civic Platform party who participated in the EPP meeting, suggested when he said that “the question is now whether he will follow what he says. Then, obviously, he can stay with us.” This comment, which I missed yesterday, further convinces me that Fidesz’s position in the EPP is not at all secure and the question of expulsion did come up during the meeting.

Admittedly, only one day has passed since the EPP meeting, but there is no sign of any let-up in anti-EU, anti-Soros propaganda in Hungary. On the contrary, it seems to me that Orbán’s answer to his “humiliation” is open defiance. Nobody really commented on the fact that Viktor Orbán was accompanied by Antal Rogán, his propaganda minister, during his stay in Brussels. Rogán sat silently next to him during his appearance before the European Parliament, and he could be seen at the brief encounter with journalists after the European Council meeting was over on Saturday afternoon.

Orbán’s forced grin may be a sign of discomfort

Rogán’s task is to explain to the Hungarian people what “really” happened in Brussels. He started his propaganda campaign this morning by giving an interview on Magyar Rádió’s “Vasárnapi Újság” in which he emphasized Hungary’s right to maintain positions different from those of the EU majority on certain issues. If necessary, the Hungarian government will take legal action to defend this right. Interestingly enough, he didn’t mention Central European University, the NGOs, or the “Stop Brussels” campaign. His concern was the migrant question. On this there can be no compromise, Rogán maintained. As for Fidesz’s relationship with the EPP, Rogán came up with an intriguing scenario. His claim is that George Soros has been working behind the scenes to have Fidesz expelled from the EPP. According to Rogán, Soros is also putting pressure on the European Union to force Hungary to dismantle the fence and the transit zones on the Serbian-Hungarian border, but this is not negotiable.

We know that the migrant question was discussed during the EPP meeting because politico.hu reported that Saturday’s meeting became tense “when Orbán said he will never accept Muslim migrants” into his country. The refugee crisis is Orbán’s most effective political weapon. Orbán contends that the refugees who came through the Balkans were not desperate people running away from war and the refugee camps in Turkey and elsewhere. Instead, someone for political reasons must have encouraged these men and women to migrate to Europe. Orbán first blamed Angela Merkel, who invited the refugees to Germany. Later he pointed the finger at George Soros, the perfect scapegoat for his political purposes. By accusing Soros of evil designs against Hungary and, in fact, against the whole of Europe, he can move against both the bothersome NGOs and Central European University. CEU may not interfere with his policies as some of the NGOs do, but an independent university over which he has no jurisdiction remains an irritant.

Bence Rétvári, undersecretary of the ministry of human resources, identified Soros as the source of all the problems Europe and Hungary are facing today. Soros’s meeting with Juncker especially bothers the members of the Orbán government. They envisage a whole Soros network that “applies pressure on the country.” Rétvári directed another attack on Central European University and its president, Michael Ignatieff, who after all “led the Canadian Liberal party and therefore behaves like a politician.” Despite all the protestation, he claims, CEU is not an independent university.

The brand new “Stop Brussels!” and anti-Soros ad, which runs on several television channels, can be seen here with English subtitles.

Zoltán Lomnici, Jr., an extreme right-winger and an active member of the government-sponsored CÖF, a pseudo-NGO, demanded on M1, the state television news station, that the 226 members of the European Parliament named in a document released by DC Leaks should be investigated because of the possibility that they serve foreign interests. Lomnici is referring to a publication prepared by the KumQuat Consult for Open Society European Policy Institute titled “Reliable allies in the European Parliament (2014-2019).” The list contains mostly Social Democratic, Green, and Liberal politicians. Lomnici pointed out that of the 17 MEPs who spoke during the plenary session on the Hungarian question 11 appeared on the Open Society’s list. Nézőpont Intézet, a pro-government think tank, devoted an opinion piece to the subject in which the author listed such important politicians as Martin Schulz, Olli Rehn, Gianni Pittella, Guy Verhofstadt, Sophie in’t Veld, and Ulrike Lunacek. Even Frank Engel, a Christian Democrat, is listed, which naturally explains why Engel would like to see Fidesz expelled from the EPP. Magyar Idők was pleased to report that Prime Minister Robert Fico is also contemplating steps to achieve “the transparency of civic organizations in Slovakia” and that the Polish government, just like Hungary, has problems with the Norwegian Fund.

The current Macedonian crisis is a godsend for the Orbán government’s Soros bashing. I should note here that Hungary, alongside Russia, is backing the Macedonian president, Gjorge Ivanov, who was a guest of the Orbán government about a month ago. On April 18 a Fidesz member of parliament addressed a question to Péter Szijjártó concerning the situation in Macedonia where, in his opinion, George Soros is behind the disturbances in Skopje. “The people of Macedonia have had enough of this and they began a ‘Let’s Stop Soros’ movement.” László Szabó, undersecretary in the foreign ministry, the man who will be the next Hungarian ambassador in Washington, replied. He claimed that Soros has been organizing anti-government demonstrations ever since May 2015. Since then, Péter Szijjártó released a statement about foreign interference in Macedonia’s internal affairs, which bore a suspicious resemblance to the statement published by the Russian ministry of foreign affairs.

In any case, the anti-Soros campaign is going on with renewed intensity as is the campaign to sign and return the “Stop Brussels!” national consultation questionnaires, to which both the European Commission and the presidency of the European People’s Party have strenuously objected. In fact, the government just launched a new campaign to urge people to return the questionnaires because they will play a vital role in the government’s defense of the country against the attacks by the European Union. At the same time, the government is trying to explain away the real meaning of the national consultation which, according to the latest interpretation, is simply a way of expressing the Hungarian government’s intentions to reform and improve the structure of the European Union. Somehow, I don’t think that Frans Timmermans and Joseph Daul will fall for this latest ruse of Viktor Orbán.

April 30, 2017

Viktor Orbán before the European Parliament

I watched the full debate on Hungary in the European Parliament and took copious notes throughout, but here I will offer only some overall impressions. I found Frans Timmermans, first vice president of the European Commission, most impressive, especially since he kept his message to Viktor Orbán brief but to the point. He emphasized the difference between “opinions” and “facts,” intimating that while the Commission’s objections to the Hungarian government’s actions and policies are based on facts, Hungarian answers to their objections are not.

I can’t stress enough the duplicity of members of the Orbán government and its servile media. Every sentence they utter must be scrutinized because it usually turns out that the claims they make to bolster their arguments are unfounded. The EU commissioners have been lied to for at least seven years, if not longer. But it seems that not until this latest “national consultation” did they realize the extent of the lies. Six statements, six falsehoods. Although Frans Timmermans talked about several problems, he spent most of his time on those six statements, refuting them one by one. The false claims, along with the refutations, can be read on the European Commission’s website as well as in the Budapest Business Journal.

The European Commission naturally had several other major objections to the Orbán government’s policies–among them, discrimination against women, treatment of the Roma, the criminal code, the attack on NGOs, and of course the crude attempt at shuttering Central European University.

The answer Timmermans received from Orbán was, as usual, full of inaccurate statements. Orbán proudly pointed out how unsuccessful the European Commission and Parliament have been in enforcing their will on Hungary, starting with the Tavares Report, which he described as “an embarrassing failure.” (For those of you who no longer remember what the Tavares Report was all about, I recommend reading my post on the acceptance of the report by the European Parliament and Professor Kim Scheppele’s “In praise of the Tavares Report,” which also appeared in Hungarian Spectrum.) And if that weren’t enough, Orbán decided to make clear what he thinks of those who “warmly receive a ruthless speculator who ruined many lives and who is an open enemy of the European Union.” Otherwise, he didn’t accept any of the objections to the “Stop Brussels!” campaign or to his country’s treatment of the NGOs. He accused the EU leaders of anti-Hungarian prejudice. In brief, since he couldn’t really counter the objections, he had to rely on ad hominem attacks.

Orbán’s so-called rebuttal was followed by short speeches from the leaders of the EP parties, all of whom, with the exception of the far-right groups, were critical of Viktor Orbán and the Hungarian government. If you visit the website of Hungarian Free Press, you will find a good summary of some of these speeches. HFP’s review of the events spends some time on the comments of Esther de Lange, a Dutch Christian Democratic politician and member of the European People’s Party, who said: “I feel pain in my heart because I recall the other Fidesz, which wanted to be part of a united Europe. It is not the first time that it appears that developments in Hungary are going against European values…. Are you really the type of man who must paint an inaccurate and exaggerated picture of ‘Brussels’ as an enemy, in order to appear stronger at home?” To this I would add a comment made in a similar vein by the Austrian Ulrike Lunacek (Green Party) who recalled that this is the third time that Orbán appears before the European Parliament. Unlike before, he no longer wants any dialogue. “You must be weak because you want to scrap CEU. You must be scared of freedom and criticism. You are scared of democracy.” Finally, she noted that not even EPP members encouraged him with their applause. Only far-right groups are behind him.

Source: Politico / Photo: Emmanuel Dunnand / AFP

Orbán’s final speech was a great deal less bellicose then his introductory remarks. In fact, I would describe it as subdued. He assured his audience that his government is ready to engage with the EU on all the issues, some of which will be settled easily. It looked as if he was truly worried about Fidesz’s possible expulsion from EPP which, given the present mood of the majority, is unlikely. He was also upset by references to his opposition to Brussels , all the while eagerly accepting EU funds. “What we receive is not a gift,” he said. Statements about his lack of democratic convictions also bothered him. Judging from his facial expression, the accusation that he is “a copy of Putin and Erdoğan” especially pained him. But it wasn’t enough to prevent him from uttering yet another lie. He tried to explain away the “illiberal” label he himself attached to his political system. His new take is that Hungary’s “illiberal democracy” is simply “a democracy led by non-liberals.” I can’t imagine anyone in the European Parliament believing that linguistic invention.

Finally, here is a tidbit that no one has yet called attention to. Zoltán Balczó of Jobbik also delivered a short speech. Although he declared his party’s opposition to Soros’s Open Society, he added that “Jobbik doesn’t accept the government’s attack on Central European University. We are waiting for the final word from the Constitutional Court.” What surprised me most was the way he closed his speech: “We are against this corrupt regime.” I never thought I would hear a Jobbik MEP utter those words.

I’m sure that in the next days and weeks the Hungarian media will be full of predictions about the outcome of this latest “war” between Orbán and the European Commission. In fact, the debate has already begun. But I would counsel against hasty calls. Orbán may not be as sure of himself and his success against Brussels as his public posturing would indicate. According to Magyar Nemzet, several Fidesz heavyweights have been cautioning him against using inflammatory rhetoric and assuming a combative attitude. Meanwhile, Népszava got hold of an e-mail sent to all the other members of the European People’s Party by the 12 Fidesz members. Their tone is in stark contrast to Orbán’s bellicosity. “We are not perfect, not all of our experiments are successful, but we are flexible and we are ready for serious discussions about the future of our country and of Europe.” They said they stand “very far from those who work for the destruction of Europe.” Finally, they wrote that they “are members of the club and accept both the benefits and the burdens” that go with membership. Their final words were: “We do make mistakes; we are not perfect; and we are ready to correct them.”

And, of course, as I said the other day, the Hungarian constitutional court may step in to lift the uncomfortable burden of the CEU law from the shoulders of the Orbán government.

April 26, 2017

Michael Ignatieff in Brussels ahead of Viktor Orbán

Tomorrow Viktor Orbán will have to make an appearance in the European Parliament in, as 888.hu put it, “the defense of our homeland.” In his long article Gábor Nagy recounts the indignities Orbán has suffered over the years at the hands of the European Commission. He lists all the “unfair” sanctions and infringement procedures, which, I can assure you, are numerous. Dozens of penalties have been levied against Hungary every year. And now, once again, the author continues, the homeland is under unjust fire. The Hungarian people should rest assured, however, that “Orbán is still fighting Brussels,” with the prospect of victory. Or at least that is what the grammatical construction of the sentence implies.

Even though the author envisages victory, a couple of sentences at the end of the article indicate that there is plenty of worry in Hungary over the outcome of this latest bout between Orbán and the European Commission and Parliament. The author calls attention to the fact that “right after the Wednesday EP meeting, Juncker & Co. will decide on new infringement procedures as a result of closing the Serbian-Hungarian border and the Central European University law.” Worry is also evident in a Magyar Hírlap editorial about the possible expulsion of Fidesz from the European People’s Party. It quotes all possible statements by Christian Democratic politicians in defense of Viktor Orbán and tries to calm nerves by quoting a Hungarian proverb about the porridge which is not as hot when eaten as it was while being cooked.

So far the Hungarian government is not backing down. Viktor Orbán declared that “if it’s war, let it be war,” meaning he is ready for a fight. The Orbán government found a new “star” among the Christian Democrats, István Hollik, a relatively young man who has become a forceful and extremely loyal spokesman in defense of the Fidesz-KDNP position. Practically all of his assertions are false, but he utters them with a conviction and force worthy of Szilárd Németh, except that Hollik’s demeanor and delivery are more civilized. Today in a press conference he delivered an indictment of both George Soros and the European Union. Soros, we were told, has been banned from “many countries–from the United Kingdom to Israel,” and “more than a dozen politicians in Brussels are in Soros’s pocket.” It is “an open secret, according to him” that his men are in the European Council and the European Parliament. As far as Hungary’s membership in and support from the EPP are concerned, Hollik claims to know that “the members of the European People’s Party are certain that EPP’s leaders, just as in earlier times, will not believe the mendacious allegations against Hungary and will give the country an opportunity to explain the facts and to clarify the misunderstandings.” My feeling is that this optimistic bit of news comes from the Fidesz contingent within EPP.

Well, if it depends on Michael Ignatieff, I don’t think there will be any misunderstanding in the EU about what the Hungarian government is doing as far as Central European University is concerned. Here are a couple of sentences from Ignatieff’s talk at an event organized on the issue of CEU in the European parliament, as related by The Guardian. His verdict on what the Orbán government is doing to his university is crystal clear. “It is just outrageous and these people around here need to understand how outrageous it is. This will be the first time since 1945 that a European state had actually tried to shut down a free institution that conforms to the law, that has good academic standards, operates legally…. My job is not to tell Europe what to do about it but to say: here are the stakes, this is why it matters.” Unusually frank words in the political world of the European Union. When Ignatieff was asked what Orbán hoped to achieve in persecuting CEU, he said: “You have really got to ask him. I can’t characterize what the agenda is with confidence and for me that is not the issue. I don’t care what the agenda of Mr. Orbán is, actually. My point is you don’t take an institution hostage to serve your political agenda, I don’t care what it is.” Ignatieff is, by the way, “cautiously optimistic” that the European Union will launch infringement proceedings against the Hungarian government.

Ignatieff also participated in a discussion organized by the Free University of Brussels (ULB/VUB), where the Hungarian ambassador to Brussels was present. The ambassador admitted that the European Commission might initiate an infringement procedure against Hungary on account of the CEU scandal, but “we are ready to face them and settle the disputes together.” There might, however, be a faster and more effective way to punish the Orbán government. You may recall that Ignatieff talked not only to Frans Timmermans but also to Carlos Moedas, who is in charge of research, science, and innovation. It is possible that the new law can be seen as interfering with the free flow of scientific inquiry, and therefore it might run counter to EU laws. In fact, that possibility was brought up in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. If this is the case, the EU could withdraw support for scientific research in Hungary.

Earlier, I thought there would be an easy way for the Orbán government to get out of this sticky situation. With the help of Jobbik, 64 members of parliament signed a request to the Constitutional Court to take up the case and decide on the constitutionality of the new law on higher education. The Hungarian legal community is practically unanimous in its conviction that the law is unconstitutional. Such a ruling by the court would provide cover for the government. It could drop the whole idea and thus save face and, at the same time, demonstrate to the world that, after all, Hungary is still a democratic state. Unfortunately, there is a problem of time. If President Áder had sent the amendments to the court for review, the Constitutional Court would have had to rule within 30 days. But in the case of a parliamentary petition, it might be several months before a verdict could be expected. So, in the short run this is not a workable solution.

For now, everything depends on what happens by the end of the week in Brussels.

April 25, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s latest war is turning out to be a big mistake

Yesterday I ended my post by saying that, according to the latest public opinion poll conducted by the Publicus Intézet, within a few months the number of Hungarians who think the Orbán government’s foreign policy serves Russia’s interests tripled from 9% to 26%. That is a dramatic change. Given the mood in Budapest, I assume that this trend will continue. B. György Nagy, who reported on Publicus’s findings in Vasárnapi Hírek, titled his article “They made a big mistake with the Russians.” That is, Orbán’s decision, for whatever reason, to court the Russians has backfired badly. The government media’s overtly pro-Russian and anti-Western propaganda, the government’s undisguised admiration for Vladimir Putin, the population’s ambivalent feelings concerning Paks–all these have shaken public confidence in the Orbán government itself. The war on Brussels, on George Soros, on Central European University, and on civic organizations has only compounded these problems.

The events of the last two days have increased pressure on the government. We just learned that a Russian diplomat knew ahead of time about Magomed Dasaev’s planned vigilante act. Former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány announced on Friday that there are credible grounds for Vladimir Putin’s alleged blackmail of Viktor Orbán, and today he held a press conference where he further elaborated on some of the details of the evidence he claims to have. Another demonstration against Russian interference in Hungarian affairs is going on this moment near the Russian Embassy. (The police cordoned off a large area next to the building.) The Party of the Two-tailed Dog staged a hilarious anti-government demonstration, reported on by major media outlets all over the world. On top of it all, the massive propaganda campaign against CEU and the NGOs has not shifted Hungarian public opinion. Where is the political wizardry of Viktor Orbán?

The “Stop Moscow” demonstration / Photo: Népszava / Gergő Tóth

Hungarians are not following the lead of the government when it calls them to wage war against Central European University. Although we often hear commentators claim that most people have no idea what CEU is all about, that’s not the case. According to Publicus Intézet, only 22% of Hungarians sampled hadn’t heard of the university and only 14% support the government’s plan to close it down. A sizable majority (63%) are against the government’s anti-CEU campaign.

Moreover, the overwhelming majority of Hungarians think that in a well-functioning democracy civic groups, representing the interests of the people, must exist. In fact, in the last three months the percentage of people who believe NGOs are important government watchdogs has grown from 68% to 74%. When it comes to foreign-supported NGOs engaged in political activities, the majority (57%) still support the government’s position on the issue, but three months ago their number was higher (60%). In general, 66% of Hungarians disapprove of the government’s shuttering of civic organizations.

The government is not much more successful when it comes to the campaign against George Soros. When in June 2016 people were asked whether Soros wants to topple the government, only 27% of the respondents agreed while 44% disagreed. Despite all the propaganda, Hungarians’ perception of Soros hasn’t changed much. Today 47% percent of the respondents don’t believe that Soros wants to overthrow the Orbán government and 32% thinks otherwise. The same Hungarians believe that Russia poses a greater threat to the country than the American-Hungarian financier. In November only 32% of the voters considered Russia a threat; by now it is 42%. On the other hand, the vast majority (close to 70%) have trust in the United States and the European Union. Somewhere along the way Viktor Orbán has lost his bearings.

Moving on to Brussels, today Michael Ignatieff, president of CEU, had conversations with Frans Timmermans, first deputy president of the European Commission, and Commissioner Carlos Moedas, who is responsible for research, science, and innovation. Tomorrow he will take part in an event organized by the four largest delegations in the European Parliament. On Thursday George Soros will meet with Jean-Claude Juncker and Commissioner Vĕra Jourová, who is in charge of justice, consumers, and gender equality. On Friday Soros will talk with Frans Timmermans and Jyrki Katainen, vice president and commissioner in charge of jobs, growth, investment, and competitiveness.

On Saturday the European People’s Party will hold a meeting to discuss the Hungarian situation. Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP group, warned Viktor Orbán a few days ago that Fidesz’s membership in the EPP caucus shouldn’t be taken for granted. He emphasized that core principles such as freedom of research and teaching are not negotiable.

In addition, there will be a plenary session of the European Parliament devoted to the “CEU” law. Apparently, Orbán is planning to attend. Finally, we mustn’t forget about the serious investigation underway by the European Commission “on the state of democracy” in Hungary, where further sanctions against the Orbán-led country are expected.

I can’t help thinking that this cheap, domestically ineffectual propaganda stunt against Soros, CEU, and the NGOs was one of Viktor Orbán’s greatest mistakes, one that may eventually unravel the whole fabric of his carefully crafted political system. Whether it was inspired by Vladimir Putin, as many people suspect, or it was designed to boost the resolve of Fidesz’s core supporters ahead the election next year doesn’t really matter. It can only be described as a colossal blunder. I suspect that Orbán didn’t expect such a vehement reaction both at home and abroad.

I have no idea what Orbán’s next step will be, but for now the Soros bashing continues unabated in the government media. In fact, if anything, it has intensified. Last week the latest spokesman for Fidesz, Balázs Hidvéghi, claimed that within one year “George Soros pumped 1.2 billion forints [$4,187,172] into his agent organizations in order to build up a new oppositional body to make persistent attacks against the legitimate Hungarian government.” This is more, he added, than the amount of money parties receive from the government annually.

Perhaps there is some inner logic to Orbán’s recent wars, but from the outside they don’t make much sense.

April 24, 2017